Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson: taxpayers get more bang for their buck with parks than anything else
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson delivered his fifth State of the City address on Thursday evening. The event fulfills a requirement of the city’s charter, which Johnson used the opportunity to talk about what he calls the “four Ps” — public safety, property taxes, parks and potholes.
The address, which has been held at city owned venues in the past, was broadcast on WBAP News Talk radio. The choice of platform comes after Johnson announced his switch to the Republican Party — just months after being reelected — and the formation of the Republican Mayors Association.
“In past years we’ve made the…address an in-person event,” Johnson said during his speech. “But this year…I decided to keep things simple.”
He said that “America is yearning for Dallas” and that an increased interest in the city brings a unique opportunity.
“But with this opportunity comes some distinct challenges,” Johnson said. “Our fast growing suburban neighbors have been capitalizing on their proximity to Dallas, and trying to out do us.”
Johnson said the surrounding cities are competing with Dallas for the families, jobs and economic investment. But he says if he is mayor, the city is going to “play to win.”
Public safety played an important role in Johnson’s reelection campaign — and he has previously cited what he claims is a failure of Democratic leadership to support law enforcement as a reason for switching to the GOP.
During his address, Johnson pointed to a drop in violent crime throughout the city and said the decrease was in part due to the city’s violent crime reduction plan.
But Thursday night’s address was also one of the first times that Johnson has publicly acknowledged the other side of the crime reduction data.
“Still, I want to level with you. It’s not 100% good news,” Johnson said. “That’s because after two straight years of decreasing homicide numbers, murders are likely to be up this year over last year.”
Johnson said he isn’t happy about the numbers — and that crime rates and increasing violence is not something city leaders should accept or excuse.
“Next year Dallas must intensify its efforts to stop violence,” Johnson said. “Police recruiting and hiring must improve.”
In addition, Johnson says the city needs to shore up more money to fix the ailing Dallas Police and Fire Pension System — which currently has billion in unfunded liability — and to “explore every public safety solution.”
Johnson praised state leaders for prioritizing lower property tax rates. And in Dallas, he says last year the rate was cut by the largest amount in “at least four decades.”
But in addition to cutting taxes, Johnson warned against an increasing General Fund budget. He said since 2010, the city’s general fund budget has increased by 83%.
“That’s because even in an uncertain world there is one thing you can count on; the wish list of city government bureaucrats will always grow. There will always be a new program, a new pet project, a new department or office to establish for one reason or another,” Johnson said. “And your tax dollars will pay for it, whether it works or not.”
Johnson said he is not giving up the fight for what he says is responsible government spending — and that he plans to ask the government performance committee to start planning immediately for a 2025 city budget that “holds spending flat and cuts your taxes.” He also pointed out only five city council members — including himself — voted for lower property taxes during budget amendment discussions.
But after Johnson pointed to the need to limit municipal spending and what he claims will be an ever growing “wish list of city government bureaucrats” — he said for the city’s upcoming bond allocations, there are clear priorities.
“The two biggest allocations…must be for streets and for parks,” Johnson said. “That’s what the people of Dallas want, that’s what I want as your mayor and that’s what our city needs.”
Recently, the city’s community bond taskforce recommended spending $350 million — nearly a third of the bond capacity — on parks and recreation. Another third of that will go towards street infrastructure.
Johnson appointed Arun Agarwal to chair the bond taskforce. Agarwal also serves as the president of the Dallas Parks and Recreation Board.
If approved by the city council — and by Dallas voters — the parks allocation would be the largest in the city’s history, according to Johnson. He pointed to critics opposing the taskforce’s parks recommendation and saying the allocations should be used for housing.
“Look, we need more housing in Dallas,” Johnson said. “But historically government is simply not good at playing the role of a housing developer.”
Johnson said when it comes to housing stock the city needs “real scale” and only the kind the private sector can provide. He said updating the city’s permitting process and “easing zoning restrictions” are ways he claims can bring more impact.
But ultimately, Johnson claimed that parks would be the key to Dallas’ success.
“Parks help us attract and keep families in Dallas,” Johnson said. “When we’re smart about it, we get more bang for your buck with parks and trails and recreation centers than with anything else we do with your tax dollars.”
Johnson ended his speech by looking to the next generation of Dallas — and said he wanted to make sure they can see opportunity “for years to come.”
“I want them to yearn for Dallas,” Johnson said. “That means we still have work to do. But its work that we will continue to do together.”
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